Mixed Messages from Rolling Stone Article
Last month, Rolling Stone magazine published an article online entitled “All-American Despair.” The piece delves into the “suicide epidemic” in the American West and brings much-needed attention to the middle-aged men who are most at risk.
While we at MindWise are in complete agreement with the need for a more empathetic understanding of this at-risk population, we oppose some of the language used around suicide in the article. We also strongly advocate for following safe messaging guidelines in how to address suicide and behavioral health. Below is our letter to the editor of Rolling Stone, which details our concerns in full.
|June 12, 2019
Jason Fine, Editor
Dear Mr. Fine,
I work for a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing behavioral health resources to schools, workplaces, and communities – called MindWise Innovations. We are working to eliminate stigma for those struggling with substance use or their mental health, promote early intervention by connecting individuals to treatment options, and reduce suicide deaths.
We applaud Rolling Stone for featuring the recent article “All‐American Despair,” which focuses on mental health and suicide (published May 30, 2019 on www.rollingstone.com). Bringing attention to the plight of middle‐aged, working‐class white men in the U.S. – a group that is not usually offered much sympathy – is a crucial first step in addressing the crisis of suicides for men in this demographic. Furthermore, the article also emphasized the dearth of mental health professionals across rural America, which is another key aspect in working towards a solution.
Stephen Rodrick’s genuine openness and honesty throughout the piece help to create an empathetic understanding of the particular despair that affects this population. Clearly it is not just the lack of qualified psychologists and social workers, or the dim economic prospects, or the harsh and lonely “cowboy” mentality, or even the shocking availability of guns – it is all of these factors and more that have come together to drive such a tragic suicide rate. By highlighting the importance of mental health issues and telling the story of those struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more, Rolling Stone is helping to move forward the national conversation.
However, much of the article’s discussions around suicide stray in two ways from what is considered safe messaging. First, effective suicide prevention teaches that suicide is not a crime and should not be portrayed as such. Doing so only feeds into existing stigma around behavioral health and suicide. The article refers to an individual “committing suicide” and describes “male suicide victims.” Crimes are committed, and crimes create victims – whereas suicide is purely a tragedy. Those who struggle with suicidal thoughts or attempt it are deserving of care and treatment, rather than dismissal or minimization through association with a criminal act.
The second way in which “All‐American Despair” violates the principles of safe messaging is in its litany of suicide descriptions. Although speaking and writing openly about suicide do not give individuals morbid ideas to harm themselves, identifying the method of suicide and going into detail to describe how it was done can. The sensationalist tone of the seemingly endless list of men in the article who used guns to end their lives has a point – we see and admit that. The need to make the connection of the pervasive access to guns to the high suicide rates in the geography covered by the article is understandable. I count fifteen deaths by suicide that detail at least the method if not further details of the men’s last moments. This sort of direct identification is in fact harmful and could potentially lead to the very sort of “suicide contagion” referenced in the article.
We understand the challenge of writing about such a complex and painful issue, and we at MindWise remain impressed with Rolling Stone for featuring suicide prevention and behavioral healthcare so prominently. Mental health and substance use disorders are widespread across the U.S., but they affect different populations disproportionately. Bringing light to the experience of one of these affected groups will hopefully lead to greater support and deeper understanding. We look forward to reading more insightful reporting on issues of behavioral health in Rolling Stone, and hope you’ll take note of these concerns around safe messaging. Thank you for your time and attention.